chapter  4
22 Pages

Irene (769-802)

Irene was born in Athens, presumably between 750 and 755. 1 In 768 the 'Isaurian' emperor Constantine V Kopronymos (the 'dung-named' because he was said to have defecated while being baptised as a baby), who, because of his iconoclast policies, went down through Byzantine history as a monster of depravity and wickedness, wanted a bride for his eldest son Leo IV. Historians offer no explanation of why Irene was chosen, and in view of Irene's iconophile predilections it would seem that her religious views were ignored in the selection process: an orphan, she was a member of the Sarantapechos (Sarandapechys) family which must have been of political significance in central Greece. She was to place some of her family in positions of prominence: a cousin later married the Bulgar khan Telerik and another relative married the future emperor Staurakios. 2 Her uncle Constantine Sarantapechos was a patrician and possibly strategos (commander of the theme) of the Helladics, and his son Theophylact, a spatharios, is mentioned in connection with the suppression of a revolt centring around Constantine V's sons in 799. 3 The fact that little is known of her family has led scholars to suggest that Irene might have been the first instance of an imperial bride chosen through a 'bride-show', a means apparently used for choosing a bride for heirs to the throne from the late eighth century until the early tenth:4 the Life of St Philaretos, written c. 821-2, gives the details of the procedure employed by which envoys were sent out through the empire to select girls who met the strict standards of beauty laid down for potential empresses. The girls were then presented to the bridegroom and he, or in fact his mother, made the choice. There is no evidence to support the hypothesis that this strange custom was introduced to Byzantium by Constantine V's first wife Irene, a Khazar princess,5 or that Irene took part in a bride-show, other than the fact that there seems to have been no obvious reason for her choice as an imperial bride.